Grandia III (PlayStation 2) review
"A sense of serenity permeates the night air, blinking lights lining the makeshift runway providing a fitting opposite to the sea of stars above. A blue-haired boy, Yuki, is sitting at the controls of what looks like a boat with wings, and his companion makes sure everything is in working order. The final checks are completed, and soon the engine of the odd boat-plane roars to life. With a slight lurch it starts forward, picking up speed on the downward slope of the runway until it jumps graceful..."
A sense of serenity permeates the night air, blinking lights lining the makeshift runway providing a fitting opposite to the sea of stars above. A blue-haired boy, Yuki, is sitting at the controls of what looks like a boat with wings, and his companion makes sure everything is in working order. The final checks are completed, and soon the engine of the odd boat-plane roars to life. With a slight lurch it starts forward, picking up speed on the downward slope of the runway until it jumps gracefully free of the ground. It's flying. The moment of exhaultation is a temporary distraction from the fact that it's not flying quite as well as it should. It's almost as if there was some extra weight somewhere. That's when a second head pokes out of a small cargo compartment in the back...
Turns out his mother snuck onto the plane when he wasn't watching, largely to chastize him for flying again even though she had quite sternly told him to stop doing that. Yuki informs her that she needs to stop holding him down. Literally. The added weight eventually proves too much for the little plane, and it soon crashes. As if that wasn't bad enough by itself, it crashes into the carriage of a young girl who seems to be running from some bad men.
The game starts out with such charisma and enthusiasm that it quickly becomes infectious. The admittedly cliché characters display a wealth of humanity that makes them instantly likeable. Make no mistake: you've seen this plot before. Grandia III never even tries to trick you into believeing that it's any more than a simple story of a simple adventure of a boy and a girl just trying to bring a little love into a world that needs it. What really makes it worthwhile is that the characters are believeable. Yuki, for example, just wants to fly. He sets off on his journey because he wants to meet his childhood hero, Schmidt, and learn from him what it's like to be a real pilot. No grand delusions, no heroism, he's just a kid with a big dream. It's a refreshing departure from the aching gothy swordsman who seeks to confront his inner demons. Miranda, his mother, adopts the maternal mantra of "It's dangerous out there" and tags along to look out for her son. And maybe to provide an encouraging nudge to the relationship he has with the girl, Alfina, along the way.
But then something happens. Perhaps 5 hours in, the game rather abruptly stops being about Yuki's dream of flying and starts being about Alfina's problems. The feeling you're left with is like one team of writers handed the story over to another without telling them what the tone was. From that point on, the game gives you little momentary glances at what it used to be like, but you never actually get to go back. In a pinch, the mood evaporates, and the game seems to frantically rush from plot point to plot point without taking the time to stop and smell the roses of development. The unfortunate part is that it could have worked beautifully if the game had kept up the feel of the beginning the whole way through. Instead, what you get is simply functional and leaves you waiting for the next time when the characters will be themselves, even if only for a fleeting moment.
Perhaps the reason for the broken writing can be found in the remainder of the game. Few games are as beautiful as Grandia III, which puts the bland outdoor environments of other games to absolute shame with lush forest scenery full of streams and lakes of crystal water that sparkle in the sunlight. The fact that the paths carved into the rolling hills resemble something that Escher might have drawn more than a sensible travel route doesn't matter because it's all so gorgeous. The characters themselves are wonderfully animated, showcasing some of the most convincing expressive capabilities to be found in a video game. They move, speak, and even look happy, sad, angry and a whole range of other emotions in a way that is completely believeable, and would easily convey their intent even if there was no competent voice acting to add actual inflection.
Luckily, a huge budget blown largely on asthetics can be a good thing for a battle system, and the polish with which the game shines visually throughout is especially notable during combat. Grandia has long since been home to some of the more over the top attack animations in RPGs, and Grandia III raises the bar considerably. The characters fly about the screen with the kind of frantic undertone you might expect in an intense battle, acting independantly as you tell them too, but all at once rather than one at a time. Magical spells raze the ground in a torrent of flame, uproot the entire field in an earth-shattering quake or unleash rising shower of icy knives to throw the enemy into the air where another character races in to juggle them skyward in an aerial combo.
But beyond all the shine, the whole thing actually works. Grandia's combat progresses with a grace that is rarely seen in other games, and has just that proper blend of skill and strategy that many RPGs strive for but never quite attain. As always, the battle system is built around two main options: combo and critical. With two consecutive hits, the combo option does more damage, while critical does one big hit, and has the potential to cancel the enemy's attack. In essence, the whole battle system is one large balancing act, with canceling or delaying enemy turns standing opposite to doing big damage.You can simply attempt to power your way through enemies, taking the hits as you go in an effort to burn them down before they take you. Or you can manipulate, canceling their turns while you slowly whittle them away. Even magical effects and skills fall into the same scenario, with most of the large scenery-destroying blasts doing relatively little to slow enemies down, and small concussive blows knocking them back on the ever turning action gauge.
A wonderful tool, the action gauge is something like the final evolution of the ATB bar in games like Final Fantasy VII. Unlike a bar that fills to indicate one character's turn, however, the gauge is one big bar that everyone else moves acrossed. When they reach the end, they take their action. Additional layers of complexity are added by the element of attacking enemies on certain points of the bar in addition to the other strategic options. It's not uncommon to find yourself planning several moves ahead for little ways to squeeze extra time out of the gauge. All the while, your characters run around on the screen in a flurry of semi real-time activity.
The battles are always frantic, always interesting, and always fun to watch and interact with. They stand ready to pick up the slack at times where the plot drags and hold the whole experience together. In the end, Grandia III's strengths make up for its shortcomings. Even with the plot problems, it's a breath of fresh air in a market inundated with games that take themselves too seriously. At the same time, one can't help but wonder what it could have been with more consistant writing and just a little more care. Unfortunately, the body over soul inclination of the gaming market seems to have reached so far as the Grandia series, making what should have been an outstanding treasure that all would be eager to own simply a worthy sequel.
Community review by dragoon_of_infinity (July 20, 2006)
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